70:20:10 - helpful myth or not? - The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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70:20:10 - helpful myth or not?

Published by in Informal learning ·
I have just been reading a thought-provoking article by Toby Harris regarding 70:20:10 (and other learning and development myths), and thought that this made a lot of sense.

There is something in the idea of 70:20:10, and it has certainly captured the imagination of many organisations and raised the profile of informal learning. However, as Toby says, following the concept blindly is not helpful.

As I also mentioned in a previous blog, it is just not possible to divide up the ways in which people learn into the categories which 70:20:10 identifies. The original idea for 70:20:10 came from observations regarding leadership in American corporations made by Lombardo and Eichinger in 2000. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this was not peer-reviewed in academic literature, and so must always be a little suspect. There has then been this extrapolation from the leadership context to learning in general, which is also problematic.

What is perhaps more reliable is research carried out by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (Frazis et al, 1998) which suggested that 80% of what people learn is done informally. Broadly in line with 70:20:10, but this research did state that the distinction between formal and informal is very difficult to define.

Toby also points out the contradiction of organisations implementing 70:20:10; of course, as soon as you institute informal learning it is no longer informal. Merely setting up social learning platforms to facilitate informal learning has also been shown to be very problematic. Again, much peer-reviewed research has shown how difficult it is to set up a sustainable informal learning network (or community of practice), particularly in organisations where the culture of sharing information is limited.

True informal learning starts at an operational level and is probably largely through large numbers of small conversations. This then needs to filter back up through the organisation so that it can influence messages coming back down the organisation through the formal training process. This is all in line with what complexity theory and the edge of chaos concept suggest as a way of meeting the infinite variety of an operational environment.

The challenge, therefore, is for organisational culture to change to allow learning to move up through the levels rather than be primarily a downward process. If 'implementing 70:20:10' can achieve this, then rock on!

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